A respectful treatment of masturbation

Discussing sexual topics on a Mormon blog is always a delicate thing. First of all, such topics often make many people feel uncomfortable. But frankly the most unpleasant part of the whole thing is that if you try to explain the Church’s position on sexual issues you are always accused by the doubters of being judgmental, intolerant, etc.

This post on the FAIR blog does an excellent job, in my opinion, of dealing with an extremely difficult topic: masturbation.

Does the Church believe that masturbation is wrong? Yes. Is it a grave sin akin to fornication or adultery? No. But it clearly is something that should be avoided and is something for which we should repent.

Given that young people are exposed to a long list of TV shoes and movies that treat masturbation as normal and perhaps even laudable, it is a pleasant surprise to see a well-done summary of the Church’s position that is both logically presented and well-documented.

Here are some of the highlights of the FAIR blog piece:

What is the Church’s position?

The prophets have been clear that masturbation is not a practice that is approved by the Lord. While the current edition of For the Strength of Youth pamphlet does not use the term “masturbation,” it clearly refers to the act all the same. It reads: “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body.”

President Packer made it clear that it is not a grave, heinous sin on the order of (say) fornication or adultery, but it is still something we should avoid:

One of you, perhaps, has not fully understood until now. Perhaps your father did not talk to you. You may already have been guilty of tampering with these powers. You may even have developed a habit. What do you do then?

First, I want you to know this. If you are struggling with this temptation and perhaps you have not quite been able to resist, the Lord still loves you. It is not anything so wicked nor is it a transgression so great that the Lord would reject you because of it, but it can quickly lead to that kind of transgression. It is not pleasing to the Lord, nor is it pleasing to you. It does not make you feel worthy or clean.

(To Young Men Only, pamphlet, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)

President Kimball said something similar: “Masturbation, a rather common indiscretion, is not approved of the Lord nor of his church, regardless of what may have been said by others whose ‘norms’ are lower. Latter-day Saints are urged to avoid this practice. Anyone fettered by this weakness should abandon the habit before he goes on a mission or receives the holy priesthood or goes in the temple for his blessings.” (Spencer W. Kimball, “Love Versus Lust,” Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [Provo, 5 Jan. 1965], p. 22.)

Why is masturbation wrong?

It seems to me the simplest answer is that masturbation is a purely selfish act, and sexuality is, at its most sacred, an act of selflessness. For both men and women, learning selflessness, especially in sex, is a key to developing a long-lasting and mutually beneficial marriage. The sacred act of procreation involves selflessness through pregnancy and birth and child rearing. Obviously, most of this burden falls on women, but men are given constant tests of their willingness to offer love and support to their wives and to be equal partners in child-rearing. If men concentrate solely on their own sexual pleasure, which masturbation encourages, they are missing the point.

The FAIR blog also points out:

But when sexual stimulus comes in the form of masturbation, completely devoid of the sharing and vulnerability and complementarity of marriage, then the brain can become wired so that it is primarily masturbation that produces the reward, and an individual can become increasingly unable to sexually respond to a spouse. Masturbation and intercourse are simply different. One who masturbates frequently has a very direct knowledge of what actions bring pleasure most effectively. It can be difficult or impossible for a spouse to reproduce the pleasure that a masturbator has learned how to produce on his or her own. Thus, sexuality, if not expressed in the context of a loving and devoted relationship, turns inward and becomes a focus on self. It is spiritually dangerous to use sexuality for self when God intends for it to be used to help us overcome our love of self.

Even if one were to masturbate while focusing one’s thoughts on one’s spouse, it’s still impossible to replicate the experience of being with another, actual person with flaws and fears and perhaps very different sexual needs. It doesn’t change the fact that one is providing one’s own sexual stimulus, instead of having to learn how to give and receive.

What about the claim that men will be harmed if they do not ejaculate enough?

Any claims you have heard that you will be physically harmed unless you do masturbate are simply false, or greatly over-blown. There is a study that shows that older men have a lower risk of prostate cancer if they ejaculate more frequently. However, this same finding was not replicated in the case of young men. In fact,higher rates of masturbation raise the risk of prostate cancer in young men. Interestingly, more frequent intercourse did NOT raise the risk, but masturbation did.

The FAIR blog also has a marvelous quotation from C.S. Lewis on the subject:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect love: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself….

Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

(C.S. Lewis, letter to Keith Masson (3 June 1956); cited in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis (HarperOne, 2008), 292-293.)

To sum up, I was quite impressed with this blog post and its treatment of the delicate subject. The post would be a good resource for young men or young women, and probably even some adults, who are not sure about the Church’s position on this issue.

Note to readers: Given the delicate nature of this subject, I will be moderating all comments.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B has had three main careers. Some of them have overlapped. After attending Stanford University (class of 1985), he worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. In 1995, he took up his favorite and third career as father. Soon thereafter, Heavenly Father hit him over the head with a two-by-four (wielded by the Holy Ghost) and he woke up from a long sleep. Since then, he's been learning a lot about the Gospel. He still has a lot to learn. Geoff's held several Church callings: young men's president, high priest group leader, member of the bishopric, stake director of public affairs, media specialist for church public affairs, high councilman. He tries his best in his callings but usually falls short. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

9 thoughts on “A respectful treatment of masturbation

  1. 2010 Church Handbook of Instructions
    “Married couples should also understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife.” 21.4.4

    The church handbook says sexual relations within marriage is divinely approved. I assume that not having sexual relations in marriage implies that husband and wife are not expressing love nor strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds. Does the church express an opinion with respect to men or women who refuse to have sexual relations with their spouse? Like masturbation, is the refusal to have sexual relations with your spouse a grave sin, or it is a sin akin to masturbation? Or, is the refusal to have sex with your spouse just as bad as having sexual relations with a non-spouse? Is masturbation always considered a sin, even in though instances where spouses fail or refuse to have sexual relations within marriage? I, too, thought the FAIR article was a good summary, but it was fairly limited in scope and application. The SOF pamphlet, while wonderful principles, expressly applies to unmarried teens. And you don’t necessarily have to have erotic thoughts in order to masturbate. Taken at face value, then mutual masturbation within the context of marriage would also be wrong. At the end of the day, I would rather my priesthood leaders address the issue of masturbation clearly and unambigously than to have someone with good intention try to tell me what church doctrine and/or policies are with respect to masturbation. Not to knock SWK or old church pamphlets, but I’d much rather see something coming from President Monson addressing the issue than rely on (possibly) antiquidated positions.

  2. Idiat, I can’t imagine that Church authorities are going to answer all of your questions. If you have this many questions on the subject, it appears to me that you will need to get personal answers from the Lord or from a bishop/stake president (when I say “you,” I mean a person asking that many questions not you specifically). I can imagine that there are extenuating circumstances for all such guidelines, so there probably are for this subject also. It would seem to me that to answer every eventuality the Church would have to devote page after page in the Handbook to this issue, and I don’t see that happening.

  3. Thanks for summarizing this. I was interested in hearing what they had to say, but I have an ADD problem that only kicks in when listening to podcasts.

  4. DavidF, I cannot sit and listen to a podcast. I upload them into my iTunes account and then listen while driving or if I am going for a walk (which I do almost daily), so I may have my own ADD problem.

  5. This often is a very odd and touchy topic. I recall when I was at BYU, my roommates were talking about this. At one point, one of them said “even though we know it’s wrong, every man alive has masturbated at some point.” I (should have kept my mouth shut, but instead) stated “I never have.” They all accused me of being a liar. I had to move out of that apartment soon after, mostly because they started being very rude to me after that.

    [Of course, then there was the time in jr. high when some kids tried to get me to look at a porn mag, and I refused. The next day. one of the kids got in my face and started yelling at me "you're not normal! My mother says that's not normal! What's wrong with you?"]

    It seems to me that “self-love” would be very, very unfulfilling, but then a large part of Satan’s plan is to provide counterfeits that don’t really work but fool us into thinking they’re okay.

  6. Ivan is very admirable. His comment reminds me of a 1975 talk by Elder Featherstone in which he said this:

    “We shouldn’t have a problem with masturbation. I know one fine father who interviewed his 11-year-old son and he said, “Son, if you never masturbate, the time will come in your life when you will be able to sit in front of your bishop at age 19, and say to him, ‘I have never done that in my life,’ and then you can go to the stake president when you are interviewed for your mission and tell him, ‘I have never done that in my life.’ And you would be quite a rare young man.”

    So it’s definitely possible!

  7. “I (should have kept my mouth shut, but instead) stated “I never have.””

    Ivan, I think this was one of those moments teaching you how important it is to have boundaries, and enforce them very strongly. Whether or not you had participated is simply none of their business either way. It’s best to keep some personal information away from people like that. I know I’ve never sat around with my roommates and discussed that topic. Can’t imagine why I ever would.

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